Human Ashes Left At The Vietnam Memorial Find A Not-Final Resting Place To some, the Vietnam memorial is a sacred space and a fitting place for deceased veterans. But the National Park Service says it's not equipped to care for the remains that are being left there.

Human Ashes Left At The Vietnam Memorial Find A Not-Final Resting Place

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This Memorial Day, my co-host Ari Shapiro brings us a story of one of the lives that was shaped by the Vietnam War. We begin at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here in Washington as evening falls.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: By this time of night, the masses of school field trips have slowed to a trickle. And a National Park Service ranger makes the rounds, picking up items that have been left behind at the base of the wall. On this night, that ranger is Bob Herendeen.

BOB HERENDEEN: I'm just going to start right at the beginning here, guys, and just go straight down, OK?

SHAPIRO: With a flashlight in one hand and a clear plastic bag in the other, he surveys the things people have laid at the wall during the day - American flags, wreaths, flowers.

HERENDEEN: This is a note from a young person.

SHAPIRO: Sometimes school groups write letters to fallen soldiers. More personal items like canteens and dog tags will be catalogued and archived. About once a week, the ranger comes upon something deeply personal that cannot be added to the permanent collection.

HERENDEEN: So I will point this out to you guys right here. These are human remains.

SHAPIRO: Oh. It just looks like ash to me, but you can tell that these are cremated remains of someone.

HERENDEEN: This has become a more common occurrence at the wall. We can't - you know, it's a difficult thing because you realize, on the one hand, that this was somebody's last wish to be - have their remains placed here on the wall. We have to follow protocol and clean up the ash and remove it. It has to go into a hazardous waste disposal.

SHAPIRO: Last fall, the Park Service put up a sign telling people not to leave human remains here, but that hasn't stopped them. Sometimes it's more than just a scattering of ash. People have left urns. Those go to the National Park Service's Museum Resource Center in Landover, Md.

JANET FOLKERTS: This is the cabinet that we keep all of our cremains in.

SHAPIRO: Janet Folkerts is the curator for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial museum collection. The Park Service is working to find a respectful final resting place for the human remains that have been left at the wall over the years, someplace like a veterans' cemetery.

FOLKERTS: We are not a mausoleum. We are not a crematorium or a grave site. So we don't have the capacity to take care of them in the way that they should be taken care of.

SHAPIRO: One of the containers caught my eye because of a letter taped to the front of it. I began to read the cursive handwriting on the flowered stationery. The letter starts, to Jimmy.

(Reading) Jim carried the weight of your death every day of his life. He blamed himself for your child never having known you. He blamed himself for being in the hospital with malaria...

BARBARA OTTERSON: (Reading) Instead of having your back when the attack came that took all of your lives. The belief that he could somehow have saved you never left him, misguided as it was. Jim never really left Nam. It took him, too, in the end. So I'm leaving him with you. It's what he wanted. I hope you're both smiling and at peace now.

And then I signed it, Jim's wife Barbara.

SHAPIRO: Barbara Otterson wrote that letter four years ago. Her husband's name was James Gooderum. She left his remains at the wall in 2014, two years after he died.

OTTERSON: It's a place he always wanted to visit. But due to the severity of his PTSD, he could never bring himself to go there. So I took him later. And then I knew that the name of his best friend from Vietnam was on the wall there, James B. Elder. And - I don't know. It just seemed appropriate to leave him with his friend. And I wrote a letter to Jimmy because - I don't know. My husband always wanted to reach out to his family, to the son that didn't know his dad, but he could never bring himself to do it. Again, it was the PTSD. It just - it controlled his life.

SHAPIRO: By that point, it had been more than a year since he died.


SHAPIRO: Was it still a very emotional experience for you?

OTTERSON: It was harder than I thought it would be. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought I was ready for it. I thought I'd been through all the grief and all the emotion. But after I left it, I cried for an hour.

SHAPIRO: Was it over the loss of your husband, or - I guess I should - it sounds like an obvious question, but what were you crying about for that hour?

OTTERSON: The waste of a life. He never recovered from the three years he spent in Vietnam. He never was whole again.


OTTERSON: He missed so much that he wanted to do that he couldn't do. And a lot of dreams that we had just - we couldn't get there because of the emotional trauma.

SHAPIRO: Your letter sort of explains the story, but clearly there was one firefight where James Elder, Jimmy, was killed while your husband was in the hospital with malaria. That was kind of a pivotal moment in Jim's life. Do you know when and where that took place?

OTTERSON: Not exactly. I know that my husband's biggest problem was that the medics would not really take your temperature or examine you or anything just for having malaria unless you started vomiting. And he had become so weak that he lied about having thrown up so that they would take a look at him. And as it turned out, he had a fever of over 104, and they medevaced him out. And because he lied to the medic, he somehow decided that that was why Jimmy was dead. That if he hadn't lied to the medic, if he had somehow toughed it out with a fever of 104 and went on with his fireteam, that he would have made the difference. And that they were all dead because of him.

SHAPIRO: How did your husband's PTSD express itself?

OTTERSON: When I first met him, he couldn't go out of the house for a week before and a week after 4th of July because of the firecrackers. If there was a loud noise, I'd usually find him on the ground and in the gutter or behind something. And this was 20 years after coming back from Vietnam. If it rained and it rained hard and long, he couldn't go out of the house. He would become so severely depressed that he was non-functional because it reminded him too much of the monsoons. It expressed itself just about every way you can imagine.

SHAPIRO: You've talked about the things that made your husband's life so challenging. I don't want to end without giving you an opportunity to tell us about the wonderful things about him, the things that you loved about him, the things that you'll always remember about him.

OTTERSON: He loved to sing. We used to sing together all the time. He loved animals. He was a good Christian man. He cared. He cared very deeply.


SHAPIRO: Barbara Otterson left her husband's ashes at the wall long before there was any sign telling people not to. She says it's the closest she could get to the place he felt most at home with his brothers in arms from Vietnam.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.